Everybody’s favorite existential prince of Denmark is once again bemoaning and bewailing onstage in Detroit. This time, however, his fate is not only sculpted by Shakespeare, but by the politically impelled pen of German playwright Heiner Müller in his radical, self-conscious and self-critical 1977 play, Hamletmachine.
Director Jennifer George added her hand into the classic-modern mix after reading how Müller had staged Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Hamletmachine running afterward, and inserted bits of Hamletmachine into the original. George took that idea and twisted it around, inserting bits of Hamlet into Hamletmachine. The result is now playing at the Zeitgeist Theater until Nov. 23, where our notoriously self-reflective hero meets his ultimate critic — himself. Alas, although this ambitious production wields great potential, it has more than its share of disappointments.
Müller (who died in 1995) referred to his play, a text only eight pages long, as “the shrunken head of the Hamlet tragedy,” and appropriately so. The play takes a bird’s-eye view of two of the most intriguing characters in literature: Hamlet and Ophelia. It examines what they represent — Hamlet as “the birth of conscience” and Ophelia as the “lost mind” of love, among myriad related interpretations — within an abstract political and social context. Hamletmachine inundates the audience in a great poetic purging as Müller transforms Hamlet into a walking, talking revolution in the midst of a communist country after Stalin’s death. When placed next to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s a rude, twentieth-century awakening.
While Hamlet’s Hamlet hems and haws over “incestuous sheets” and “But break my heart for I must hold my tongue,” Hamletmachine’s Hamlet smashes the delicate situation against the wall, “on top of the empty coffin the murderer humped the widow LET ME HELP YOU UP, UNCLE, OPEN YOUR LEGS, MAMA.” The two theatrical pieces spliced together react against each other like a mirror against a mirror, forever reflecting each other’s image. As far as the production’s strengths go, George made some very right choices. In a black tux, Hamlet lies prostrate over the tilted stage with pipe ladders coming up the sides (an effective stage design by Troy Richard), as if the stage were a pool of emotion spilling into the audience. As Hamlet, Chris Korte exudes a piquant humanity, continually tearing at himself, pulling his insides out into the open in a wonderful performance. George successfully inserted a couple of her own inspirations, like a David Lynch-ian fantasy wedding sequence with bubbles from heaven and dreamy avant-rock guitars. She extended Müller’s Hamletmachine line, “Hail Coca-Cola,” by having the cast break out into the Coca-Cola ditty, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” And she directs a very impressive- and dangerous-looking sword fight and horror-show finish. But much of the cast suffers from a disconnectedness.
The chunks of Shakespeare’s real McCoy were still too largely intact to hold up next to Hamletmachine’s thick, super-potent content. Shakespeare’s Hamlet became (I hate to say it) dull when it went on for more than a few minutes. Sara Galloway’s portrayal of Ophelia didn’t help (she clutched a relentless, single-edged weepiness that paled next to Korte’s multifarious Hamlet). It was the transitions between the two texts that gave birth to the most exciting, transformative interchanges, and there just weren’t enough of them.
In the end, the Zeitgeist’s Hamletmachine Hamlet is a great idea that still needs some thoughtful honing. Hamlet, however, is a character that will always be relevant as long as “this mortal coil” harbors inner turmoil. Müller seems to have identified with Hamlet, claiming him to be, “much more a German than an English character ... the intellectual in conflict with history.” Both Müller and Hamlet were forced to bear the weight of their family’s/country’s murderous past, an apparently hopeless position to overcome, especially as long as Hamletmachine’s sentiment rings true — “Something is rotten in this age of hope.”
Hamletmachine Hamlet plays at the Zeitgeist Theatre until Nov. 23. The theater is located at 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit. For more information e-mail [email protected] or call 313-965-9192. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $15. Call for reservations.Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]